New York Herald|
1 August 1877
The first night of a new play by Mark Twain and Bret Harte was an event which naturally attracted a large audience to the Fifth Avenue Theatre. "Ah Sin" was heartily received and the laughter it evoked was sufficient to make the fortunes of two or three modern comedies. The scenery was new and pleasing, and altogether the play achieved a popular success and, we think, will have a long run.
A number of attempts have been made to create a distinctly American drama, but our dramatic literature still remains essentially English. Our native subjects are few. First we have had the Revolutionary drama, embodied in such plays as "The Spirit of '76," "Washington," &c.; then there is the Indian drama, of which Stone's "Metamora," written for Forrest, and now only acted by McCullough, is the principal representative. Recently there have been many efforts to depict American society on the stage, but few of them have been successful. In our opinion the only real American drama thus far has been founded upon negro life in the South. Slavery in a free country is essentially dramatic, and afforded the widest scope for emotional and characteristic expression. There was ample room for the broadest humor and the deepest pathos and for the contrast of the extremes of civilization and barbarism. This was illustrated by "Uncle Tom's Cabin," by Mr. Boucicault's "Octoroon," two plays which had their birth on American soil, and could belong to no other country. Now comes another attempt to make a distinctively American play, and the hero this time is not the revolutionary soldier, nor the Indian, nor the Yankee, nor the modern millionaire, nor the negro, but the heathen Chinee. This singular being is a recent importation, but has already become closely intermixed with American society, especially in the West, and has been made by the writings of both Bret Harte and Mark Twain, a familiar type. He must always be an eccentricity on the stage, because it is impossible to make him pathetic. The play last night seems to sustain this view of the dramatic possibilities of the Chinaman's nature.
Although "Ah Sin" will succeed as it is produced at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, it cannot be justly called a good play. The materials are all old, the character of the Heathen Chinee being excepted, and they are not well used. The plot turns upon the supposed murder of a mining speculator in California, the accusation of an innocent man, his trial by lynch law, the discovery of the real criminal, and the sudden appearance of the supposed victim at the end of the piece. With this pre-historic tale is associated an under plot almost as old. The first two acts are the strongest, and the first introduces an effective game of poker, which ends in the crime on which the mystery of the play is based. The second act has dramatic points, but the third is devoted almost altogether to talk, while in the fourth, a jury scene, none of the principal characters have anything important to do. The plot wanders, and the termination of the drama is an anti-climax that could not be surpassed. The Heathen Chinee is ingeniously connected with the plot in the beginning, but drops out of it in the middle, and only re-enters at the end. Still he is an actor in the story and one of the important characters. The literary merit of the play is small, and its tone is low. Much of the dialogue is exceedingly coarse, depending for its effect upon slang of the vulgarest kind. The conversation between Mrs. and Miss Plunkett in the third act was entirely without wit, and only fit to amuse the ignorant. The play is not a picture, but a caricature of Western life, and the trial scene in the fourth act is a burlesque on humanity.
The two elements which will make "Ah Sin" successful are the character of the Chinee and the admirable manner in which it is performed by Mr. Parsloe. He is the life of the play. He has the merit of being always funny and never vulgar, and his imitation of the Chinaman is natural and free from extravagance or buffoonery. Mr. Collier, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Weaver, Mr. Crisp, Mrs. Gilbert, Miss Mary Wells, Miss Goldthwaite and Miss Bland sustained the other leading characters with ability.